How Britain's MI6 gave the world modern spycraft

by Fiona Rae / 09 December, 2018
David Jason’s Secret Service.

David Jason’s Secret Service.

RelatedArticlesModule - David Jason Secret Service spy

Espionage nerd David Jason takes us inside the world of secret agents, including the inaugural MI6 boss’ car. 

Think of all the gifts that Britain has bestowed upon the world: Shakespeare, steam power, the Beatles, best bitter – and, according to David Jason’s Secret Service (History, Sky 073, Monday, 7.30pm), modern spycraft.

Espionage has been around forever – just ask Sun Tzu – but as the 19th century became the 20th, increasingly ingenious methods were invented by MI6’s first director, Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming.

As a self-confessed espionage obsessive, Jason is jammily using the three-part series as an excuse to tool around in cool cars, starting with a 1910 racer known as the Beast of Turin. Needless to say, in his inimitable Del-Boy-speak, it “goes like the clappers”.

He’s in the car because it’s the kind of motor that the flamboyant Cumming used to race. He was also famous for stabbing himself in his wooden leg to test if prospective recruits flinched. Mostly, however, Jason is in a Sunbeam Alpine, the car driven by Sean Connery in Dr No.

According to Jason’s first expert, the need for this new secret service was partly due to the publication of a 1906 spy thriller written by William Le Queux that imagined a German invasion of Britain in 1910. It may have been anti-German, but it wasn’t entirely wrong, as Kaiser Wilhelm II was building up his army and navy and the nascent British intelligence service was about to be tested in Belgium and France during World War I.

After Germany invaded Belgium, MI6 recruited agents from the huge influx of refugees escaping to Britain, among them Gabrielle Petit, a young woman who was trained to recognise enemy uniforms and the movements of trains.

However, it’s her story, and that of other Belgian agents, that are a lesson in why secrecy is so important. Working alone, she was betrayed and executed by the Germans.

Another network of agents in Belgium, called La Dame Blanche, monitored the movement of trains and troops. Many women were involved, weaving coded information into their knitting.

Some of the methods for getting information in and out of Belgium and France seem primitive now. Hot-air balloons that delivered homing pigeons; coded invoices (the Kaiser was “grande fromage”); a simple wooden frame to get through the electric fence between Belgium and the Netherlands.

They’re terrific stories and the next episode moves into the pre-Bond era, as Jason explores the “superspies” of World War II.

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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